Don't Trust Your Gut On Hillary: Why The Visceral Suspicion Of Her Is Predictable – And Untrustworthy

10/29/2016 06:52 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2016

“She can't honour anything she is morally corrupt.”

“There is nothing this corrupt, deceitful, incompetent, power mad harpy won't do.”

“Let the liar burn.”

“CRIMINAL.”

“She is despised for what she is…liar, untrustworthy etc…not being a woman.”

“She is a proven liar & a total stain on the cloth of decency.”

“We know she is a corrupt, incompetent liar. No doubt.”

***

Another day, another scandal – or, most likely, another pseudo-scandal – involving Hillary. And, in a way, there’s little wonder; the law of supply and demand demands it. Many Americans just can’t shake their sense that Hillary Clinton is up to something – that she’s a liar, a fake, an evil deceiver. It’s a conclusion in search of an argument, and immensely resistant to relevant counter-evidence: e.g., that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy,” as Jill Abramson put it in The Guardian earlier this year.

Clinton hasn’t always been as transparent as she should have been, and is in no way exempt from criticism for her handling of emails, among other things. But her leaked emails have revealed little if anything to confirm the many damning suspicions which continue to swirl around her. And despite Trump’s shameless lying, he has intermittently polled as significantly more trustworthy than Clinton. This is rationally indefensible. So, what explains it?

Commentators who share my general sense of things – as opposed to said suspicions – have often sought to explain it in terms of specific facts about Hillary: her history, her husband, her supposedly cold demeanour, or the ’abnormalization’ of her emails. But such ways of proceeding betray a common mistake in reasoning: preferring case-specific explanations to general ones, and (relatedly) neglecting base rate information about the extent to which the facts to be explained should surprise us. It may be that, more or less regardless of who Clinton was, she would have been subject to similar suspicions, as a woman on the cusp of a position of unprecedented political power and influence. The difference would just be the specific post hoc rationalizations invoked to justify mistrustful feelings which appear to be predictable, irrational, but in some ways understandable.

At any rate, that’s my suspicion, based on the following four observations.

1. There’s precedent for female political leaders being branded liars and untrustworthy, and their careers foundering on this basis, despite well above-average records for honest dealings. This was also the case with Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, who was branded “Ju-liar” for going back on her word (something male politicians have done before and since, without causing similar fallout). The mistrust was evident in descriptions of Gillard very similar to those of Clinton, and now broadly agreed, in Gillard’s case at least, to have been unjustified.

Gillard was also investigated on corruption charges dating back some twenty years, after she lost the leadership. The charges came to nothing, and were largely deemed a witch hunt carried out by her erstwhile political opponent, by then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. The commissioner cleared Gillard of the relevant accusations. He nevertheless not only scolded her for a “lapse in professional judgment,” but also questioned her credibility as a witness, based on her facial expressions while giving testimony. (She looked irritable – as might you, if faced with what were, by the commissioner’s own admission, false allegations.)

By the way, the tweets with which I opened weren’t about Hillary; they all referred to Gillard (with occurrences of her name changed to female pronouns). And these were but a small selection of a plethora of similar tweets emitted from late April to early May 2013, when the corruption allegations became public, to widespread “I knew it!” reactions from Australians. But they weren’t true; so they didn’t.

In view of the similarly overblown suspicions about Gillard and Clinton, it’s worth considering whether our perceptions about the trustworthiness of female political leaders are all that reliable. Our eyes can play tricks on us under specific conditions, through no fault of our own – e.g., a straight stick will look bent at the point it enters water. Analogously, it could be that our sense of who to trust is similarly prone to distortions here, even among well-intentioned and ordinarily reliable people. In which case, the feeling that these women are untrustworthy would itself be untrustworthy.

But why would that be? It surely can’t be as simple as gender bias, stereotypes, sexism, or misogyny of a general kind. The percentage of people who trust Gillard and Clinton just seems too low for that – dipping to around a third of their respective constituencies at the nadir of their ratings on this measure. Plenty of these doubters, a group which would obviously include both men and women, surely trust women in some domains. So any explanation in terms of gender would need to be more specific, in order to be both plausible and also fair to people.

Is there anything to go on here, by way of relevant empirical evidence? Happily, yes; a there’s a sizeable body of research which sheds immediate light on why Hillary’s likeability ratings aren’t higher. And we can move from there to see how a lack of trust might naturally follow, given the way our moral minds can conspire with our guts to play tricks on us.

2. It’s well-established that women in traditionally male-dominated fields and roles (e.g., leadership positions in business and politics) tend to be perceived as less competent than their male counterparts, given ambiguous evidence. But the psychologist Madeline Heilman was interested in cases where the evidence of a woman’s achievements was unequivocal. Data show that high-achieving female managers are still promoted at significantly lower rates than their male peers, for example. Why is this?

The answer, which I canvass at more length elsewhere, appears to be social rejection. Heilman and her collaborators discovered that women are disliked and shunned for their success, rather than liked and rewarded for it, as compared with their male counterparts. This social stigma is thought to owe to, and seems restricted to cases involving, clashes between prescriptive gender norms and the behavior required to excel in the role. It may not be a man’s world anymore, in any straightforward sense, in the US or Australia (among other places). But a woman doing a “man’s job” tends to be perceived as hostile and anti-social – a measure which encompassed being manipulative, abrasive, uncooperative, and untrustworthy, strikingly. These perceptions were equally prevalent among both men and women.

And you can see why they might hold without anyone being an irredeemably sexist or misogynistic character, because in a way, they’re accurate. A woman succeeding in male-dominated roles, e.g., business or political leadership, is breaking social norms and conventions which long predate America. They are norms and conventions many of us now consciously disavow, since we recognize a woman could be just as qualified as a man in theory. But in practice, when it comes to assessing specific candidates of either gender, the old code may still shape our sense of who is normal versus aberrant – or crooked.

It’s a bit like living in a new country but still remembering the old road rules. I know perfectly well that we drive on the right-hand side of the road in America. But, for an embarrassing amount of time after moving here, I’d catch myself looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic as a pedestrian, having grown up in Australia. These instincts take longer to change at a visceral level than a conscious one.

So much for female leaders being harder to stomach, socially, based on prescriptions forsworn but not forgotten. What does this have to do with trusting them, if anything?

3. A growing body of work by psychologists and empirically-informed philosophers helps to forge the connection: it seems that the emotion of social rejection is disgust, rather than anger, say, in general. The philosopher Daniel Kelly has argued that our innate disgust responses – elicited both by contaminated food and pathogen threats – were particularly well-suited, and hence recruited, for the job of regulating people’s adherence to social norms, roles, conventions, and so on. For one thing, the risk of being disgusted strongly motivates people to avoid those behaviours deemed to be disgusting. And, since disgust is easily learned from other people, this makes the mechanism culturally adaptable to encompass new actions. For another thing, as Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro have argued, disgust has the advantage of spreading by association. Those who tangle with what disgusts us may become disgusting to us too. So the risk of becoming disgusting to others by engaging in socially taboo behavior acts as a further motivator, given a common desire to avoid shunning and shaming.

4. Disgust is also a driver of moral judgments – in some cases, a powerful one. It turns out that “pangs” of disgust can sometimes cause people to judge that someone is suspicious and up to no good, even when such judgments clearly have no rational basis – when what the person was doing was entirely innocent, even praiseworthy.

In a particularly striking study by Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt, participants susceptible to post-hypnotic suggestion were hypnotized to feel a pang of disgust upon reading either the word “often” or the word “take.” They then read vignettes featuring people committing conventional moral transgressions. For example, in their ‘bribery’ scenario:

Congressman Arnold Paxton frequently gives speeches condemning corruption and arguing for campaign finance reform. But he is just trying to cover up the fact that he himself [will take bribes from/is often bribed by] the tobacco lobby, and other special interests, to promote their legislation.

Participants who read a version of this vignette containing the word that matched their post-hypnotic suggestion, and hence made them feel (more) disgusted in reading it, tended to judge the relevant acts significantly more harshly, i.e., as more morally wrong, than those who read a semantically identical vignette without the disgust elicitor.

In a follow-up study, the experimenters included another vignette as a control, describing a student council representative named Dan who [tries to take/often picks] topics of widespread mutual interest for discussion at their meetings. Perfectly innocuous behavior, right? Good behavior, even. But some of the participants who read the version of the vignette containing the disgust-inducing word begged to differ, to the surprise of the researchers. “It just seems like he’s up to something,” said one participant, vaguely. Dan seemed like “a popularity-seeking snob” to another. His behavior “seems so weird and disgusting,” a third reported, helplessly. “I don’t know [why it’s wrong], it just is,” they concluded.

The first suggested lesson: pangs of disgust can make us harsher moral critics, and may even prompt some people to read moral offenses into entirely, and obviously, innocent actions. The second: as moral critics, we don’t always deliver our verdicts based on moral reasons and arguments. Sometimes, we reach for these reasons and arguments to rationalize a verdict already rendered – unwittingly concocting a post hoc case on this basis.

It’s worth noting that not everyone is equally prone to having disgusted reactions. But Inbar and Pizarro, together with Paul Bloom (among others) have shown that people who are easily disgusted are much more likely to be socially conservative – a finding which, in this context, is suggestive.

***

Cut to Hillary Clinton, who many Americans seem viscerally disgusted by – including Donald Trump, who didn’t want to “even think” about her using the restroom during a debate commercial break in December (though he was the one to raise the subject).

Then there’s the obsession with Clinton’s health, which serves partly as a pretext for misrepresenting her as weak, frail, aging if not dying, and lacking in the necessary presidential (read: masculine) stamina – in short, as an old lady, now presumptively useless except for providing caregiving labor. But there’s also a striking fixation with Hillary’s bodily secretions, e.g., the risk of her infecting people she shook hands with during a bout of mild pneumonia back in September. Phlegm or no, her cough is remarkably controversial. Even her signature laugh – where she tilts her head back, and opens her mouth to laugh with an abandon which ought to be evidence against the common perception that she’s not genuine – seems to be a liability. The ‘envelope’ of her body appears too loosely sealed for many people’s comfort.

A Trump supporter interviewed on Samantha Bee prior to the first presidential debate opined that he expected Clinton to be using a catheter on stage, due to her many health problems. I looked it up; somehow, this had become a popular internet conspiracy theory. The interviewee added he was trying to be empathetic – to which the interviewer responded, aptly, that he might need to try harder. (And, ironically, it was Trump who was rumoured to have wet his pants at a debate back in February. This insinuation of Marco Rubio’s, which seemed almost too peculiar and awkward to be fabricated, appears to have been conveniently forgotten.)

Meanwhile, a small dark patch on Clinton’s jacket at the first debate was said to be a drool spot – more evidence of her inability to keep her mouth shut, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. (In reality, it was a shadow cast by her lapel mic.)

When people chant of Clinton, “lock her up,” at rallies, as they did just yesterday in New Hampshire, it obviously expresses a desire to see her punished. But it also goes beyond that and seems to wish for her containment, specifically. When a Republican New Hampshire representative and Trump delegate called for Clinton to be shot for treason in July, he framed his remarks as follows: “Something’s wrong there … This whole thing disgusts me. Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Later, he also called her a “piece of garbage.”

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Clinton is perceived as disgusting by many voters. And, as we’ve seen, this is likely to affect their ability to trust her, and increase the severity of their moral judgments of her actions.

Incidentally, Julian Assange was ahead of the curve. He accused Julia Gillard of treason back in 2011.

***

We haven’t been given a post-hypnotic suggestion at a society-wide level, of course, to feel disgusted when we contemplate female politicians succeeding at the highest level. But there may be a widespread functional equivalent, in view of the fact that they are breaking gendered norms and prescriptions by holding or aspiring to highest office, a role which has always been filled by male politicians in the past, and in positions deemed exclusively theirs up until quite recently, i.e., as political leaders of their nations.

All in all, it wouldn’t be surprising that the first female presidential nominee for either major party in the US – who is hence setting a precedent or, on the flipside, disrupting the social order deeply – caused pangs of disgust, or at least discomfort, in some people. And these people may also unwittingly cause others to share their reactions, by publicly expressing their disgust or promulgating ‘smearing’ associations. For disgust as a moral emotion tends to stick, stain, seep, and catch. This is due to features of disgust more broadly: it’s to our advantage to be loath to partake of that which we see another person viscerally recoiling from. Better to learn from their nauseating mistakes than risk consuming contaminated foodstuffs, for instance.

However people have come by their bad gut feeling about Clinton, they may then unwittingly try to make sense of it by engaging in post hoc rationalization, e.g., buying into one of the many potential scandals surrounding her. Of which there has certainly been no shortage, which is perhaps not unrelated to there always being a sizeable market. And FBI director James Comey appears to be doing his bit now too, by casting damaging yet inscrutable aspersions on Clinton just eleven days prior to the election – the usual buffer being sixty.

But the evidence is in. All of these potential scandals have essentially come to nothing. And Clinton is more truthful than the average politician. So, if you still don’t trust her, based on a queasy feeling, or a nagging sense you can’t vote for her with a clean conscience (or could do so only by ‘holding your nose’), you should consider the possibility that your moral mind is acting as an accomplice to your gut’s deception. Sometimes the evidence of our senses is misleading; the same goes for feelings of mistrust and suspicion.

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